There is no such thing as bad meetings, just bad facilitators.
That statement – from John Fitch and Douglas Ferguson, who oversee the Control the Room community for facilitators – might jolt you. After all, we have all been to bad meetings, some of which we have presided over. We have inevitably blamed the other people in the room, not ourselves.
Good facilitators, they note, are driven by curiosity, deep listening, responsiveness rather than reaction and are firm but not aggressive. Facilitators who flop often are obsessed with power, reactive rather than responsive, dominate the room and lash out when their power is tested. “They are filled with a dark side that prevents meetings from being magical for all participants,” they write in The Non-Obvious Guide to Magical Meetings.
In magical meetings, people don’t feel they wasted their time. And making them feel the meeting was worthwhile is your responsibility. It’s not about other people or some serendipitous alchemy that might or might not occur in the meeting. It’s about how you operate before, during and after the meeting.
Their meeting guidelines start with: No purpose, no meeting. “When you start planning a meeting, start with the why,” they write. “Make sure you can clearly articulate why you are having this meeting and what you hope to accomplish by the end.”
Also on their list: Foster emotional safety, capture room intelligence, respect everyone’s time and debrief at the end, rather than rushing off before checking what people are taking away and gaining commitment for the tasks generated.
Time is also important. They share a study that shows the optimal time for a meeting is Tuesday at 2:30 p.m., avoiding any lethargy on Monday, but early enough in the week to have an impact over the remaining days. Of course, not all meetings can be at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, but they suggest a guideline of mid-afternoon and mid-week, avoiding Mondays and Fridays.
They are fans of 45-minute meetings: Ten minutes to get started, a 30-minute activity that includes all participants, and five minutes to finalize next steps and ownership of actions. They even view long workshops as a series of 45-minute meetings.
Assign specific time frames to each topic or activity and don’t be afraid to stick to that agenda. “Many facilitators are hesitant to closely follow time frames in a meeting for fear of seeming authoritarian, but this can be a mistake,” they warn. At the same time, don’t be totally inflexible; when it becomes clear additional time is merited, figure out how to accommodate that reality. Keep in mind that you usually need more time than you initially think for meeting activities.
In longer meetings, build in breaks every 60 to 90 minutes for people to decompress and check their email or texts. By allowing them this interval, you are reducing the amount of time their minds will be wandering during the meeting itself, as well as restoring energy.
Here’s some tensions that can arise in meetings, and how they suggest responding:
- When you receive unsolicited negative feedback in the meeting: “Thank you for pointing this out. How do you suggest that I correct this?”
- When someone doesn’t want to move on from a disagreement: “I hear your frustration. In the interest of time, can we move on for now and circle back?”
- When someone puts down input from another person: “Hold on, I think he/she/they had a point there.”
- When a naysayer is objecting through body language: “It seems as if you may have a reaction to that. Can you help me to understand why?”
- When someone is frustrated and starts to put up a defensive wall: “Is that a real issue, or are you upset about something?”
Remember: There is no such thing as bad meetings, just bad facilitators.
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Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.
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